Winter in Japan: the onsen experience

River through Takayama old town

Snow-covered mountains, hidden fairy tale villages and steaming hot springs populated with blissed out looking monkeys. Steaming onsens to soak in, steaming ramen to slurp on and of course, nearly always perfect conditions for skiing and boarding on freshly groomed slopes.

Winter house in Hakuba

Japan is magical in winter. The ski resorts are famous for their powder, arguably the best in the world, but even if you’re not a skier, it’s worth visiting the Japanese mountains in winter.

I’m writing this blog post in four parts because, to me, there are four different ways to experience winter in Japan, or rather four different reasons to visit Japan in winter: the onsen experience, the culture (and history), the amazing food and of course, the skiing.

First of all, let’s talk about those onsen towns. Unlike Europe and North America, the mountain ranges in Japan are volcanic, abundant with hot springs. So if you’ve come here mainly for the skiing there are plenty of opportunities to sample this aspect of Japanese culture while you’re here.

In fact the Japanese have been visiting the mountains on short breaks for hundreds of years before someone put two planks on his feet and discovered the joys of downhill skiing.

Outdoor onsen

The tradition of bathing in public may seem a bit confronting, and the rituals maybe a little confusing, but after several visits to Japan I am now a huge fan. There’s something incredibly restorative and relaxing about soaking in hot water that’s been pumped in to your bath from a nearby geothermal spring.

If you’re visiting the mountains to ski, it’s worthwhile finding out if the hotel you’re staying in has an onsen. If so, you’ll be provided with a little onsen kit in your room, usually with a yukata (robe), towel, slippers, modesty towel and a bag to put your wet things in to bring back afterwards.

Onsen kit

We stayed in the Hakuba Highland Hotel which has an indoor/outdoor onsen. It was pure bliss to soak away the aches and pains collected during the day on the slopes, surrounded by falling snow, with a view of the mountains (which looks a lot like the pic below).

Hakuba Highland View from onsen

In the historic onsen town of Takayama we stayed in a traditional inn or ryokan called Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan.

Takayama Ryokan, Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan

In this beautiful establishment we were offered a choice of three onsen. One on the first floor, and two across the road.

Yukata and toe socks

A yukata (robe), socks and two warm over-robes (one padded) are provided to keep you warm and toasty as you cross the cobbled street.

The hot springs of Gero have been known and used for their recuperative properties for over a thousand years. The Suimeikan Hotel, where we stayed, is a massive complex overlooking the Hida River, purpose built for onsen retreats. It has a choice of three (large) onsen per gender.

View of the river from our Gero Hotel

One on the top floor with rather glorious views of the town and surrounding mountains, another on the third floor (my personal favourite), lined with timber and with a very large pool, and a third outdoors onsen on the ground floor.

Indoor outdoor onsen at Suimeikan Hotel

If you’re game (I wasn’t) there’s also an onsen down on the riverbank. I did wander down for a sticky-beak but retreated rather quickly having found an elderly couple mid-bath in their underwear.

As to that onsen etiquette – here’s a little something I wrote about that on my last visit here. Most importantly, wash thoroughly before you enter the bath, don’t swan around like a supermodel – behave with as much modesty as you can muster whilst completely naked, and don’t splash.

This monkey has almost got it right. Just not sure about the positioning of his feet.

Snow monkey, Jigokudai Monkey Park

Where to Stay:

Takayama. Our accommodation in Takayama was in a very luxurious Ryokan called Honjin Hiranoya. My room overlooked the Old Town and two onsen across the street. Kaiseki dinner and breakfast were served in a private dining room with foot well.

Gero. The sprawling complex that is the Suimeiken Hotel, is located on the banks of the Hida River. It has been here in some form or other as an Onsen Retreat for many years. The rooms have a choice of traditional or Western-style beds, and dinner is a lavish Kaiseki spread served in a private dining room.

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation

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